Monday, 30 April 2012

Life Without Objects

Over the last few years I have been learning and experimenting with a wider range of programming languages. In particular I have started using Scala as my primary development language, adopting a more and more functional style. I have also become very interested in Haskell (a pure functional language) and Clojure (a modern lisp dialect).

I have therefore been moving away from the object-oriented development principles that have made up the bulk of my 17 year career to date. More and more I am beginning to feel that objects have been a diversion away from building concise, well structured and reusable software.

As I pondered on this topic, I realised that this isn’t a sudden switch in my thinking. The benefits of objects have been gradually declining over a long period of time. The way I use objects today is very different to how I used them when they were new and shiny. In this post I explore this change in my thinking about object-oriented development.

The Promise of Objects

Back in the 1990s, objects were new and exciting. The promise of being able to create reusable classes built around common design patterns was seductive. The ability to then combine these classes into reusable and configurable business components seemed like the Mecca of software development. New languages like C++ and then, slightly later, Java held the promise of a new way of building great software.

Business Components Aren’t Reusable
It didn’t take us long to discover that the ability to create reusable business components was just a giant fallacy. Each business is significantly different from another, even in the same industry. Each similar project has very different business rules.

The only way to build reusable business components at this level is to make them hyper-configurable by adding such things as rules engines and embedded scripting languages. Hardly a component model and more like a bloatware model. This promise gone, people either buy into the big bloatware systems (suckers) or build their custom business objects on a project by project basis.

Patterns Don’t Build Well Structured Software
The next thing we learnt was that excessive reliance on design patterns doesn’t lead to the good software structure. Instead it leads to software that is overly complex, hard to understand and difficult to maintain. Some patterns even turned out to be anti-patterns (the singleton pattern makes software almost impossible to unit test, for example).

We soon learnt to use patterns judiciously. More often than not it’s just cleaner to code the software as you understand the model rather than try to abstract it into a more generalised pattern.

Frameworks for Class and Component Reuse Give Few Benefits
Another early promise of objects was rich, tightly coupled frameworks of classes which when used together would make building applications from reusable component a breeze by hiding all the technical complexity and implementation plumbing. Think EJB and similar. Experience soon showed that these just did not work. They were just too restrictive and cumbersome for what people were trying to achieve.

These heavy-weight frameworks soon died out to be replaced with more lightweight libraries and toolkit type approaches. Collections of more loosely coupled classes that you can pull together as needed are now the preferred way to build software. Take just what you need and nothing more.

Inheritance Creates Brittle Software
The ability to support interface and implementation inheritance was one of the key tenets of object oriented software development. We could spot common code and behaviour and push this down into a shared base class so that future abstractions could benefit from having this shared code available to build on.

Sadly, this just didn’t work out well. Each sub-class turns out to be subtly different from its peers, resulting in lots of overrides of base class behaviour or making the base classes even more generic. The net result was super-fragile software, where any small changes to a common base class would break most, if not all, of the sub-class implementations.

These days we don’t use inheritance much, and especially not for creating technical base classes. Its use is pretty much restricted to interface inheritance to indicate an object supports a certain behaviour or to occasional domain models where there is a true inheritance relationship. Other than that we tend to extract commonality in to separate ‘mixin’ type classes and compose them together through an aggregation approach.

Violation of Encapsulation
Another key feature of the object-oriented model was the ability to encapsulate state and then expose behaviours (via methods) that access and update this state. Unfortunately it turns out that there are a large number of cases, where we are actually interested in the vales of the state rather than the behaviour.

For example, asking an object to render itself as HTML turns out to be a pretty poor approach. Knowledge of HTML rendering gets spread across the code base and a small change in approach causes us to change many, many classes. Instead we tend to pass the object to a dedicated HTML rendering/template component, which pulls the data values from the object.

Anti-patterns have even emerged around this to allow us to have light-weight objects that just encapsulate state without behaviour (Java Beans, Data Transfer Objects and so on). If we are doing this, then why not just work directly with first-class structured data as opposed to objects?

Mutable State Causes Pain

Another perceived benefit of encapsulation was the ability to mutate the state of an object instance without impacting on the clients that use that object. However, anyone who has built a significant sized object-oriented system can tell you stories of trawling through many files of code to find the location that mutated the state of an object to an unexpected value that happened to make your software blow up in a completely different place (usually where you output or store the state of that object).

More and more we now favour immutable state and stateless services so that these problems do not occur. There’s also the additional benefit that immutable state is a much better model for building highly concurrent systems and for getting the most out of modern multi-core hardware. It’s also far easier and less error prone than trying to work with threads, locks and concurrency safe data structures.

Behavioural Interfaces Cause Code Complexity and Bloat
One of the things we do frequently in object-oriented languages is create small marker interfaces that have just a single method. Any class wanting to support this behaviour extends the interface and implements the method. We can also declare anonymous implementations for ad-hoc use.

However, we have found that neither of these approaches are particularly good. Implementing the marker interfaces often pollutes classes with implementations that are not their direct concern (thus violating the single responsibility principle). Anonymous classes are just unnecessary bolierplate that makes our code more difficult to understand and maintain.

Life Without Objects

So, is it possible to go back on 17 years of experience and contemplate a life without objects? I’m not sure that I’m 100% there just yet, but using a multi-paradigm language like Scala is allowing me to overcome many of the limitations of the object-oriented approach.

For example, Scala’s support for mixin traits makes it almost unnecessary to ever use implementation inheritance. It’s rich collections framework plus the ability to use case classes to create data structure like concepts obviates working around encapsulation issues. A recommendation to use immutable data and collections makes code easier to debug and reason about. The ability to use functions as general abstractions and type classes to extend behaviour while maintaining single responsibilities makes it much easier to build well structured, reusable software.

In fact, what I find I am doing more and more is using simple objects in the form of case classes to represent data structures, with a few behavioural methods to simplify working with this data. Then I’m just using mixin traits as a modular approach for grouping related functions together. Then I’m combining these together to form components in which I compose together various functions that transform data from one for into another.

Perhaps I’m further away from the pure object-oriented approach than I’d thought. I’m certainly building smaller, cleaner and better structured software than I ever was before.